In 1985 I gave up my life in academia, enameling, and exhibitions fo r one filled with travel and adventure. By 2006 I had retired from 20 years of being an international ethnographic trader and traveling on average two to four months a year in Southeast Asia, central Europe, and Turkey. I
then returned full-time to my enameling studio, enthused and happy until the bomb of my diagnosis hit.
Until I underwent surgery, I had no idea exactly how much time I still had to live. I decided that whatever time was left, I wanted to spend it in my studio creating work of serious intent and to begin with delving into my experience with cancer. As the process unfolded, I began to devise ways of incorporating some of my most beloved objects and studio ‘friends’ into my imagery to help narrate the story and convey my personal history of living in foreign cultures.
I faced a variety of conceptual, visual, and technical challenges, which led to a number of unexpected discoveries. (clicking on an image brings it up full size)
For pattern, texture and color, I used underglaze mason stains or oxides. I especially like dry powders because, mixed with either water or oil media, they can be penned, drawn, painted, or printed. However, because these underglazes contain no vitreous material and merely ‘stain’ the
base coat when fired, they remain mat until covered, on a second firing, with a thin layer of transparent enamel. I particularly like this technique because I can achieve a variety of color, texture, and visual information with very little build-up of enamel.
Using thin siftings of 200-mesh enamel to cover my underglaze work, I was able to build up many layers of overlapping work without adding a lot of thickness. I often used over-glazes on the final layer or applied painting enamels to deepen contrast or brighten highlights. I also used ‘pixie dust’ (sold as“Pearl Ex” or “Carefree Luster”) as well as true lusters. Finally, I etched the main figures to produce a soft surface.
Following surgery and during my radiation treatment, I began to think about the radiant self within each of us — our deep, true self. I wanted to show this ‘radiant self’ as something effervescent and brilliant. I envisioned a micro-mosaic of shimmering enamel.
To translate my vision into reality, I started developing my own ‘tessera’, an undertaking which I had begun previously while working on another one of the sculptures entitled Ikat: Layers & Threads.
For Radiant Body, I wanted to expand the range of tessera I had already produced to include a full-spectrum palette of color. It took many weeks to refine my technique and complete a full palette of color in order to fully depict the emergence of the radiant body in the piece. I made the tessera by enameling on very thin pieces of metal. I didn’t use counter-enamel. I first applied a base coat, then a layer of thin silver foil, followed by a thin coat or two of transparent enamel. I carefully broke off the enamel from the copper, applied it piece by tiny piece onto the enameled surface of the main piece, and then fired them together.
In Minangkabau: Resonant Memory, I resumed the use of the tessera in the small bezel ‘jewels’ attached to the spirals. I also wanted to draw on my experience with the Minangkabau women who live in southern Sumatra. To this end, I pressed Japanese Ginbari silver foil over an especially wonderful Minang textile I had bought in Sumatra. It was very old and beautifully embroidered with sequins and mirrors on handspun and woven

cotton. I selected a portion of the cloth without mirrors and pressed the silver foil onto the textile by using a die-forming press at relatively low psi. I made a number of experiments until I succeeded in making a perfect impression. Not only was the embroidery visible, but the weave of the fabric and the tiny threads holding the sequins in place could be clearly seen.

After firing the Ginbari silver foil into a base coat of enamel to preserve the low relief of the pressed foil, I gently rubbed mason stain into the lowest
relief areas of the piece to accentuate the contrasts. I then sifted transparent enamels over both the background and the figure’s blue sarong. This enabled me to literally integrate my personal history as well as the history of the textile into Minangkabau. I added further details with various overglazes.
The period of time between the diagnosis of cancer and receiving the results of the analysis of the tumor post-surgery was, indeed, dark and cloudy. I realized that the worst part was the dread of not knowing and being in limbo. It felt like a demon had a firm hold on me and was feeding on my dread. My only way out was to put a face to the demon and make the dread visible.
The technical challenges involved with making Demon of Dread entailed finding a way to create a background with ‘mega mendung’ — many clouds, in English — in wood, enamel and mica.
I chose Mega mendung, a classic batik motif from North Java, as the background for the piece because of my love and connection to Indonesian fabrics. I had been using wood as a substrate to mount each of the sculptures in the series, and finally I had the realization that I was wasting a valuable opportunity. I harkened back to my lessons in mask carving with the illustrious I.B. Anom in Bali in 1983. I revived my tools, bought some
wood, started carving again, and succeeded in creating the wood background of ‘mega mendung.’
I achieved the desired effect by incorporating stain, powdered graphite, and inlaid mica. One day while making enamel tests, I noticed a piece of m
ica had adhered to the counter-enamel of one test and was particularly beautiful. I decided it could be interesting to try to use mica on the front enamel. I proceeded to make a series of tests. In the end, I settled on carefully sawing out the mica, which I had fixed to heavy chipboard for support. I then fired the mica shapes into the prepared basecoat of enamel to make the ‘mega mendung’ motif on the enamel. As the mica heats and cools repeatedly, it puffs up and separates the delicate layers one from the other. By slipping a thin palette knife between the layers, I was able
to pull off identical layers of mica and apply them in other areas of the enamel.
Again, I created the details on the robe of the demon with ‘pixie dust’ gold gel pen, and true lusters. I used pressed Ginbari foil on which I drew with underglaze pencils to add texture under the figure. The scarf and ribbons are made of brass with patina, to which I applied gold leaf.
I made Edith’s hands of mica and made the body lying on the radiation bed from pierced mica. The sarong wrapping the figure is also from North Java. The colors indicate that the cloth is meant to be worn by an older woman of my age, and the motifs represent the time between the end of one life cycle and the beginning of another, or the transition from the earthly realm to the spirit realm. The sarong is rendered in mason’s stains, over which I sifted transparents. The wood carving represents both waves of love and healing energy as well as radiation. The deep background carving signifies the ties that bind.
The series took me five years to complete. I worked five to six days a week and made hundreds of tests, especially when developing new techniques for working with mica or creating tessera.
Many of the tests showed real promise, and I still keep them visible for inspiration and developing new ideas.
For the time being my cancer is gone, and I’m in good health, moving, with gratitude, on to new work in the studio.
All of the 12 sculptures that comprise Valley and Shadow can be seen here.
Written by American enamellist, Martha Banyas, who has been exhibiting her work for over 35 years.